Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir

It has been enough of a break for me from Alison Weir that I was able to pick up The Wars of the Roses a couple of weeks ago: after I’d finished reading Ian Mortimer, I was still in a medievalist mood, and the Wars of the Roses themselves are much less controversial than The Princes in the Tower.

The book itself is really in two parts. The first half(ish) deals with the founding of the Lancastrian dynasty: Henry IV’s usurpation, Henry V’s military might, and Henry VI’s early reign. The second half deals with the conflict that we now consider the Wars of the Roses.  The first half, which sets up the personalities and motivations, is much stronger than the second, and much more interesting to me.  The second half is very battle-heavy. It’s justifiable that that part is battle-heavy, since it’s kind of the point of the book, but I personally found the setup more interesting than the conflict itself.

One person that I developed a massive dislike for was Margaret of Anjou. Some of that is my own Yorkist sympathy, but a lot of it is her complete misinterpretation/misreading of the culture and prejudices that she married into. She was already hated by the English people and nobles when her marriage ended the war, gave France a few traditionally English provinces (although not Calais), and brought no dowry to England itself. She then compounded the hatred by creating her own faction at court, essentially siphoning power away from both Henry and any nobles (like York) that she didn’t like. By the end, she was trying to ally with both Scotland and France – England’s most prominent enemies.

The other fact that I found interesting – and that I hadn’t known before – was that Elizabeth Wydville and her family were originally Lancastrians. Her first husband, and I think her father, had both died in the service of Henry VI – and yet she married Edward IV.

In part because of the emphasis on battles in the second half of the book, I don’t feel like I got to know Edward IV as much as I got to know his father, or even his brother George (Duke of Clarence), who was instrumental in the various machinations around the return of Henry VI.  Gloucester (Richard, later III) was also relatively shadowy, but I think her feelings for him were made pretty clear in The Princes in the Tower.

The main thing I took away from The Wars of the Roses was a renewed interest in Henry V and, by extension, Shakespeare’s history plays. Studying Henry V was one of the more memorable aspects of my Shakespeare class at university, and I happen to have full-cast recordings of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It was really interesting to listen to (and sometimes read along with) the various parts of Henry VI and “fact-check” to some extent the play with Weir’s book, and vice versa. I did the same with Henry V – and given my recent Ian Mortimer reading, I plan on reading 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory in the very near future.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

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